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20 March 2013

Pondering Math Again

It's nice that I'm not the only one who muses about the proper balance between formal and informal teaching. It's an especially good question when talking about math.

I was taught math in a pretty rigid way. Normally, teachers are on the look out for fun activities to add to whatever the class is studying. There's a lot of learning in that sort of thing. Projects, when I was in school, were usually the sort of thing that allowed and encouraged creativity. There wasn't just one right answer; the student could own the process and put something of himself in it.

Nobody did that with math.

In math we progressed in lockstep from page one of the text to page three sixty seven, doing page after page of problems.

I am coming to the realization that it doesn't have to be that way. Math is a game, if you let it be that. It's a puzzle, it's patterns that can be manipulated and played with, often in fun and beautiful ways.

The more I realize this, the more exciting it is. Math has become one of my favorite things to teach, because even though Hero is still working on arithmetic, I am learning so much in the process of teaching him. I once dreamed of going into astrophysics, and spending my nights studying the heavens. I love stars. I chickened out because of the math required. Now I'm realizing that my struggles in math class were not because I'm bad at math, the way I always though. I think I struggled because I never saw anything cohesive about it. Math was a pile of formulas, largely unrelated formulas, that had to be memorized and correctly filled with today's numbers. I never saw the patterns, or the beauty, until I started teaching. And I certainly never saw any fun! I'm so glad I'm learning better now, so that my kids can know better than I did.

This morning's practical examples of these ideas are ones I've found in the past day or two that got me thinking about this stuff again. First, one of Vihart's clips, which I can't figure out how to embed from my phone, so you'll have to click over to YouTube for a few minutes if you want to watch it.

And second, some great thoughts at Learning Unboxed about finding a balance between formal and informal learning. I especially like this because she's got a great example math-art project they did and it's easy to see the value for her son. After spending all those years going from one page in the text to the next, it can be a bit nerve wracking to branch out and follow interests and linger over kid-made projects. But it's so valuable to let our kids own the math. She's got a great math-art project for doing multiplication tables too.

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